Dispute over Lakers broadcasts has sports bars crying in their beer

Lakers superstars Kobe Bryant, left, and Dwight Howard chat before a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Many Southern California sports bars are bracing for a frightening scene Halloween night: No Lakers on their television sets.

The Lakers deliver a jolt of added business for sports bars and restaurants with multiple TVs tuned to their games. But unless a Time Warner Cable contract dispute is soon resolved, the Lakers won’t be available to many of them, starting with the Lakers’ second game of the season Oct. 31.

“We’re definitely not happy about it,” said Paola Casanova, general manager of Lucky Baldwins Pub in Pasadena.


Greg Wolcott, owner of the Hollywood Way sports bar in Burbank, said the dispute threatens the 20%-plus jump in sales the bar experiences each time the Lakers play. “A lot of customers are calling asking if we’re going to have” the games, Wolcott said. “Right now we don’t.”

Here’s why. Under a 20-year deal, Time Warner Cable paid about $3 billion for the rights to Lakers games starting this season, to be shown on its new regional channels SportsNet and Spanish-language Deportes.

Although the national channels TNT, ESPN and ABC — channels most sports bars receive — will carry a combined 25 of the Lakers’ 82 regular-season games, that leaves 57 games for which Time Warner is at the moment the only carrier in Southern California.

The Lakers’ season opener against Dallas at Staples Center on Oct. 30 is on TNT. But the Lakers’ Halloween-night game against the Trail Blazers in Portland is, for now, exclusively Time Warner Cable’s.

Time Warner is negotiating contracts to distribute all the Lakers games to other TV carriers, such as DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon, Charter and other companies, so that their subscribers can watch the games. But those deals are still pending because the parties seem to be in a who-blinks-first negotiating strategy and haven’t agreed on a price.

That’s a problem for many sports bars because they still rely on satellite-based carriers such as DirecTV to provide them with game packages for the National Football League and other sports.


“We completely understand how important the Lakers are to fans and L.A.-area establishments that show the games,” DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer said in an email. DirecTV was “in continuous discussion with TW to work out a deal that will be affordable for everyone — our customers at home and sports bar owners.”

Time Warner reiterated a previous statement saying it was “working very hard to reach agreements with all TV providers in Southern California” but declined to comment further.

Meanwhile, the Cantina Lounge Mexican Grill in Fullerton, a DirecTV customer, after hearing of the Lakers dispute signed up for Time Warner’s service three weeks ago, said general manager Tamara Cruz.

“We have a huge Lakers following, and not being able to offer those games would hurt our business drastically,” she said. When the Lakers play other prominent NBA teams, “you’re looking at $3,000-plus in lost business” a day if the game isn’t shown, she said.

But some sports bars can’t get Time Warner even if they want it, because the cable company doesn’t serve their area.

Barney’s Beanery, for instance, can’t get Time Warner service for its restaurants in Pasadena and Burbank, said regional manager A.J. Sacher. “It’s very, very frustrating not only to us but to our customers, who are eager to come and spend money to watch their team,” especially with newly arrived players Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, Sacher said.

At least one sports bar reportedly has resorted to using “place-shifting” technology to get the Lakers games. A product called Slingbox, made by Foster City, Calif.-based Sling Media Inc., which costs between $180 and $300, enables a user to capture a game on a TV in one location and transmit it over the Internet to another location for viewing there.

The Slingbox is a way individuals can watch their hometown teams on their laptops if they’re traveling. Or, someone watching the Lakers on Time Warner at home could presumably transmit the game to a friend’s computer or smartphone.

But Sacher said, “We’re not going to do that,” because it’s unclear whether using Slingbox to show Lakers games on multiple TVs in a sports bar violates Time Warner Cable’s rights to the games. “I’m just assuming the legality of that makes it too risky,” he said.

In the meantime, “I’m not super-optimistic that we’ll see any change” in the dispute “until the first or second week of the season,” Sacher said.

At Leo’s All-Star Sports Bar & Grill in La Crescenta, which has 32 TVs but also is not in Time Warner’s territory, owner Leo Lesh estimated his bar would lose more than $1,000 for each Lakers game he can’t show and that the bar has gotten hundreds of calls from anxious customers.

“They’re wondering if I have it because they can’t get it,” Lesh said. “For a commercial business it’s ridiculous we’re even going through this. There’s nothing you can do but wait it out.”